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Speaking out against hunger

Ecumenical Advocacy Days panel addresses food insecurity, labor rights

April 11, 2013

ARLINGTON, Va.

On April 7, participants at Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) heard from a panel full of different perspectives but with one message: food injustice in the United States exists in many different forms.

EAD is an annual conference and lobbying effort. Its theme this year was “At God’s Table: Food Justice for a Healthy World.”

Dominic Barrett is director of United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond (Virginia) and Shalom Farms. Founded four years ago, the farm aims to reduce food deserts and increase food security in urban Richmond neighborhoods.

In addition to food deserts — areas lacking access to fresh and affordable food — Barrett spoke about the need to wipe out food swamps, which are areas with an overabundance of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

We love our neighbors in three ways, Barrett said. We love those in our neighborhoods, those downstream and those yet to be born. All of these ways of loving have to work together.

The problems of hunger and food insecurity are nuanced and complicated, and Barrett acknowledged that he does feel discouraged sometimes. But it’s gatherings such as EAD that give him hope.

“I am optimistic that we will bring about the Kingdom and it will be here on earth as it is in heaven,” he said.

Following Barrett was Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). A mission partner with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), CIW is a Florida-based human rights organization with more than 4,500 farmworker members.

From October to May, Florida produces 90 percent of the tomatoes in the United States. This industry supplies about 30,000 jobs, and because of high turnover, as many as 90,000 workers can work during one season. These workers earn about 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick — less than minimum wage. Workers also deal with sexual harassment, withholding of pay and other violations, Reyes said. But they often don’t speak up for fear of being fired.

“Do I want to defend my dignity or do I want to feed my kids?” he said.

CIW was formed in 1993 to address these problems, and, along with denominational partners, has since led successful boycotts against corporations such as Yum! Brands, Burger King and Trader Joe’s until they demanded better labor practices from their suppliers.

“Churches were instrumental in working with us to change the minds and hearts of other people and corporations,” Reyes said. “We’re not asking you this as a favor. We are here to ask you to stand with us and work with us.”

The final speaker was Barbie Izquierdo, a founding member of Witnesses to Hunger, a community-based research and advocacy project. Along with other Philadelphia mothers struggling to feed their children, Izquierdo has documented her life in poverty and spoken to Congress about the necessity of anti-poverty programs.

When she first got involved in the program, Izquierdo questioned whether she had a voice. But then she told herself that she’d been through a lot already and could handle any criticism that came from speaking up.

She was tired of hearing about hunger as a problem in Africa and not in the United States. Being food insecure doesn’t mean that your ribs are visible — it means you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, Izquierdo said.

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